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Coffee Cup Wisdom: The Way I See It

Coffee Cup Wisdom: The Way I See It

Look who showed up on my Starbucks cup today….

…letting me know the way he sees it: Harry Knowles, self-proclaimed “Headgeek” of AintItCoolNews.com, the entertainment website.

His bit of wisdom?

“Films today are so calculated to their opening date, that next week, next month or 10 years from now is never considered. Do you think Casablanca was made for a specific release date? It spent months in a can, considered unreleasable. Hollywood used to make stories for all time. The films you see today are made for today only. Is it any wonder they’ll be forgotten tomorrow?”

I find his quote baffling.

For someone who made a name for himself operating a Web site whose very success is predicated on the concept of buzz, marketing, and pre-release secrets, it is Knowles who is being short sighted.

He is buying, and repackaging wholesale, the notion that films from Hollywood’s bygone era are timeless works of art. While this is true of some films from the 20s, 30s and 40s, it should be noted that every generation produces its share of classics.

Often, it takes a generation to rediscover an overlooked artist (Buster Keaton, Robert Alrdich, or Max Castle). Thus far in film history, only the French have been ordained with the authority to canonize directors, transforming them from mere mortals into auteurs. But there is intense lobbying underway to extend this authority to Belgians, Swiss, and Quebecois Canadians.

Irrespective of the relative quality and apparent durability of films from the golden age or the studio era, the notion that movies of from the 30s, 40s and beyond were meant to be timeless, and were intended as anything more than disposable is suspect. Hollywood movies have always been profit-seeking products from a studio system that churns out motion pictures like an assembly line producing Model Ts.

In this era, the theatrical run of a film was it’s only life. This is evidenced by the industry’s own shortsightedness, their own poor treatment of film prints, negatives and other valuable source materials. According to The National Film Preservation Foundation, “Fewer than 20% of U.S. feature films from the 1920s survive in complete form in American archives; of the American features produced before 1950, only half still exist.”

Had studios approached the works as “stories for all time,” would they not have made the effort to preserve the materials for all time?

Contrary to Knowles’ notion, it is the modern film industry that no longer fixes its myopic eye on a big splash theatrical release. Even all the hype leading to a big “opening” can be seen as a long term marketing plan: a prelude to the far-sighted release strategy that includes a DVD release, a cable window, Pay Per View, iTunes downloads, network television premiere, sequels, video game adaptations and (eventually) cranial downloads, retinal implants and 3-D holographic interactive versions.

Studios play all sorts of games with DVD releases–from Disney’s exclusive windows to repackaging the film with added bonus material–from restoring footage excised from “R” versions to score a “PG-13” rating for theatrical, to the more ambiguous “unrated” DVD versions. Is it any wonder teens are choosing to bypass the theatrical experience? Why see a movie in the NATO managed theatres when you can circumvent the MPAA enforced ratings by buying “unrated” DVD versions of films like Wedding Crashers and Bad Santa at unaffiliated retailers like WAL-MART, Target, or Best Buy–none of whom are bound to enforce to the MPAA’s self-imposed regulations?

(As a side note–this issue was conspicuously absent from Kirby Dick’s celebrated This Film Is Not Yet Rated. It could be argued that studios, who kvetch about the MPAA, are actually benefiting from this strategy by building the risqué “unrated” version into their marketing strategy.)

More interesting perhaps is to question how DVD box sets and On-Demand has affected television programming. Where once a program was ” made for today only”, now the best television series must hold up to the scrutiny of repeat viewings. Syndication has given pay cable programs like extended life on TBS, for example. While series like Lost, Arrested Development, The Sopranos or 24 are layered with nuances–designed to pay dividends to those who revisit them in sequence on DVD.

The cool medium that once thrived in the moment, now has it’s sights fixed on “next week, next month and 10 years from now.”

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